By Duncan Forgan
If Anutin Charnvirakul has planned to bond himself with cannabis, he has gone about it the right way.
Over the past year or so, Thailand’s current health minister has not missed an opportunity to display his weed-friendly credentials. Images of him sniffing cannabidiol (CBD) oil in parliament, planting cannabis seedlings in a fetching hairnet, or mixing cannabis leaves into drinks circulate on a near weekly basis.
A recent photo on his personal Facebook page showed the tycoon-turned-politician caressing a giant cannabis plant with a near ecstatic look on his face. He posted the snap ahead of the Cannabis 360 festival in Buriram — his party’s Isaan powerbase — where the minister was a star draw at an event to promote the use of cannabis in food, drinks, and health and beauty items.
Vendors at the expo showcased a wide variety of lines, with products ranging from cannabis craft soda to soft-serve hemp ice cream and CBD anti-aging cream.
Mixed messages have been a feature of Thailand’s recent governance, but it’s hard to think of a clearer sign that the country’s cannabis industry is edging overground than having your health minister drape himself in weed leaves like your favorite stoner uncle.
Anutin, whose Bhumjaithai Party is part of Thailand’s current coalition government, has built much of his political capital on legalizing cannabis in Thailand. It’s a cause gathering seemingly irresistible momentum via successive moves to decriminalize the plant and its by-products.
He once said legalization would be “a win-win for the Thai people because they will grow the plant, and it will benefit the economy.”
“Our leaders understand the benefits cannabis deregulation will bring to the country, both economically and for the improvement of society and of health,” said Thanisorn “Phet” Boonsoong, CEO of Eastern Spectrum, a fully integrated cannabis plant cultivator and processor, which provides (primarily) hemp-derived CBD products. “We are extremely excited about the cannabis industry in Thailand. Although it’s only in its infancy, we look forward to it expanding much further as things mature.”
It’s impossible not to notice the current hype around hemp in Thailand. Medical marijuana was legalized in 2019 — albeit it is still very strictly controlled: limited to specifically licensed clinics and hospitals.
Other moves towards freeing the weed have followed. At the end of 2020 came a formal announcement that most of the cannabis plant would be delisted as Class-5 controlled substances. The formerly forbidden bark, stem, fibres, branches, roots and leaves became legal, providing they comprised CBD with less than 0.2 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) by weight. Flowers and buds—with their heavy-duty volume of THC, the high-inducing psychoactive constituent of cannabis—remain off-limits.
A pilot scheme has also made it legal for Thai households to grow six pots of cannabis each to supplement their income. But any flowers and seeds yielded from the crop grown at homes must be sent to state medical facilities as they remain in Thailand’s criminal code.
These measures have sparked a so-called “green gold rush” where cannabis is becoming increasingly ubiquitous.
On March 17, share prices of Thai cosmetics and food firms rose sharply following announcements about the research and manufacture of cannabis products. One significant beneficiary was CP Foods, which says it plans to launch hemp-based ready meals within the year. Its shares rose 1.65 percent.
All over the country, familiar Thai conglomerates, as well as small-scale entrepreneurs, are dipping their toes into the fast-flowing waters. The wave is epitomized by the appearance of cannabis cafes and the cannabis consumer products doing the rounds at Cannabis 360 and other forthcoming expos, including a major one to be held at Bangkok’s Carlton Hotel to mark World Cannabis Day next month.
The craze has even broached the counter-culture-unfriendly surrounds of Siam Paragon, where staid bakery Kanom Siam is stuffing its signature pandan cakes full of chopped leaves from the cannabis plant.
Players in the country’s green gold rush are not so interested in the plant’s potential for inducing a higher state of consciousness. Well, they are, but that’s some way further down the line towards what they hope will be full legalization of the plant—dank buds and all—and widespread acceptance (and monetization) of recreational marijuana use. What is most intoxicating to many is the financial potential of the industry.
“Marijuana is Thailand’s future cash crop,” said Sontirat Sontrijirawonghas, the secretary general of the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party and a former commerce minister.
Indeed, it is hard not to be dazzled by the figures. The global legal market is projected to grow to US$56 billion (THB1.7 trillion) by 2025, according to business consultancy Grand View Research. The Asian medical marijuana market will be worth an estimated US$5.8 billion by 2024, according to Prohibition Partners, a cannabis research firm. It’s no wonder that many view Thailand’s positioning at the vanguard of this boom as a smart economic move. It’s also a play that—on the surface anyway—appears to make sense culturally.
Conservative Thais may disapprove of your average pot-head, but even they can’t deny the country’s stoner credentials. Over the centuries, the plant has been used for medicinal herbs, topical ointments for muay Thai fighters and as an ingredient in multiple recipes. The country’s weed — especially its Thai Stick — is legendary.
“Nobody in Asia knows weed better than the Thais,” said Kris Thirakaosal, CEO and co-founder of Golden Triangle Group, which has partnered with Chiang Rai’s Rajabhat University to grow high-quality hemp for use in medical, cosmetic, and F&B products. The company is currently in discussions with potential high-profile partners, including drinks giants Red Bull and Tipco, about using its CBD-packed strains.
“We’ve had the knowledge in Thailand for centuries,” he continues. “With average temperatures up here in the north of around 26 degrees [Celsius], we have perfect conditions for growing cannabis outdoors, which is great for energy efficiency. There are strong labor advantages with a highly skilled agricultural workforce and amazing supply chain benefits. There’s so much potential.”
It’s easy to get swept up in the evangelism of business players like Thirakaosol. But others take a measured view of Thailand’s current green gold rush.
“The changes in the law are a step in the right direction, but they are just baby steps,” said Chokwan “Kitty” Chopaka, founder of Elevated Estate and former head of Bangkok-based cannabis advocacy group Highland Network.
“The communication from the government about what is and what is not allowed is quite unclear. Many people don’t know what the hell is going on. They don’t understand cannabis and just see the bubble.”
“Everyone is rushing in to stake their claim in the industry. Next, we will see the golden age of the gray market. Smaller players who are getting into the market will likely not be around in four or five months. It’s a very volatile market and will be for the next three or four years.”
Boonsoong of Eastern Spectrum agrees that the coming period in Thailand is likely to involve a degree of fumbling around in the dark.
“There’s confusion about how to capitalize on this industry,” he says. “There is a lack of information and an abundance of misinformation floating around Thailand. Our goal is to contribute to the growth of the industry by providing education and fact-based knowledge.”
The recent frenzy has tended to skate over the issue of recreational use of weed. Pandan cakes, CBD soda, and marketing paraphernalia featuring cute characters shaped like cannabis leaves suggest a societal acceptance of pot. But users of marijuana in Thailand still face severe penalties for possession, including up to ten years in prison. While many dismiss the possibility of legalization, other campaigners are more optimistic.
“I think that Thailand will make cannabis legal for recreational use within five to eight years,” Kitty said. “I believe it is inevitable, especially with more countries around the world legalizing recreational use for adults. Ultimately, politicians believe in the benefit of the ker-ching.”
Nobody doubts the economic potential of marijuana for Thailand. Of course, there will be many who come away empty-handed. On the other hand, the scope for profit is incredible, with a healthy slice of a multibillion-dollar pie the prize for those with the right business strategy and connections.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why Anutin looks so content when he’s around all those cannabis plants.